Ukraine on Wednesday marked the 80th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre, the mass shooting of nearly 34,000 Jews during the Holocaust, but the biggest development this year may have taken place online: the release of photos showing Soviet Jews uncovering mass graves.
Babi Yar, a ravine in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, is where the tens of thousands of Jews were killed within 48 hours in 1941 when the city was under Nazi occupation. The killing at the site, known as Babyn Yar in Ukrainian, was carried out by SS troops and local collaborators.
While Kyiv is helping build a memorial complex at the ravine and schools across the country Wednesday held lessons on the tragedy, Ukraine’s approach to the history of the site has proved controversial – even if local Jews consider the new take an improvement over the communist period, when the Jewish identify of most of the victims was suppressed.
As the city encroached on the ravine, the massacre site was turned into a park, and a television transmission tower was put up nearby. Young Jews who tried to hold vigils at the ravine or search for human remains were often detained by the authorities. A Soviet memorial eventually put up there did not mention Jews or the Holocaust.
According to the National Library of Israel, which has published a number of previously unseen photographs of the site, notably from 1966, the year that Babi Yar became “a central force in the awakening of Soviet Jewry.” Thousands of young people have flocked to the site every year for the anniversary of the massacre.
“Grassroots efforts also began around that time to locate the mass graves in the area, something else which was certainly not a priority for the Soviet authorities,” the library said in a blog post. The newly released images highlight “the grisly yet critical early efforts to better understand the legacy of Babi Yar and remember its victims.”
Lauded as heroes of Ukraine
Amid Ukraine’s controversial approach to the legacy of the Holocaust, Jewish groups have harshly criticized Kyiv’s promotion of a new official historiography focusing on the rehabilitation of nationalist groups that collaborated with the Nazis.
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In 2015, parliament passed bills prohibiting the denigration of groups such as the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, an ultranationalist group founded between the wars. Some of its members took part in the Holocaust, but its leaders have been lauded as heroes of Ukraine. The group was revived after the fall of communism.
In 2016, under then-President Petro Poroshenko, government officials placed signs memorializing Nazi collaborators at the site during a ceremony marking the massacre’s 75th anniversary. The following year a statue to Olena Teliha, who worked for a newspaper that supported the ethnic cleansing of Jews, was erected there. In 1942, the Gestapo executed Teliha at Babi Yar.
A few months before the 2016 ceremony, the Ukrainian government was forced to change course on a planned overhaul of the site after soliciting outside groups to submit proposals on how to deal with the “discrepancy between the world’s view and Jewry’s exclusive view of Babi Yar as a symbol of the Holocaust,” the government said.
But 2016’s commemorations were widely considered an improvement over the site’s previous treatment by the national authorities. During that event, then-Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and local Jewish leaders and businesspeople announced the formation of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, an organization building the memorial complex that is slated to include a research center and museum.
The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center has promised to take a more accurate approach to history, though it has also courted controversy. Last year, critics alleged that Ilya Khrzhanovsky, the program’s art director who has directed several intensely graphic films, planned to bring his cinematic style to the museum and make it a “Holocaust Disneyland.”
'Strong resistance in Ukrainian society'
“The Ukrainian authorities and the Babi Yar Memorial Center are making serious efforts to commemorate the victims of Babi Yar” and have largely adopted a Jewish narrative surrounding the site, Israel’s ambassador to Ukraine, Michael Brodsky, told Haaretz.
Brodsky said he believes that Ukraine’s approach has changed for the better, adding that he has seen a number of television programs and events dedicated to Babi Yar in which “the Jewish or Israeli paradigm is the leading one.”
Since the election of Jewish comedian Volodymyr Zelensky as president in 2019, Kyiv has dialed down the glorification of “the most obnoxious figures” and fired Volodymyr Viatrovych, the head of the government’s Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, who spearheaded Ukraine’s revisionist efforts, said Per Anders Rudling, a Swedish researcher of Ukrainian ultranationalism.
“Just removing him from the equation is, I think, a step forward, and there has been an improvement under Zelensky,” Rudling said. “My sense is that this most obnoxious aspect of this has been toned down.” Zelensky laid flowers at the site on Wednesday.
But according to Michael Colborne, a Canadian journalist whose book on the Ukrainian far right is due out next year, “issues of historical memory have been handled better, but only slightly better.”
“I think there’s still very strong resistance in mainstream Ukrainian society to confront these issues, even from folks who’d consider themselves no fans of the OUN and the like,” he said, referring to the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists.
According to Russian-language media reports, the German Embassy in Kyiv this week backtracked on installing a memorial stone to an OUN member who collaborated with the Nazis, following protests by a local Jewish activist. The stone was due to be part of a project to commemorate Holocaust victims in the city; the plan to honor the OUN member had been recommended by a local historical group that was advising the embassy.
AP and JTA contributed to this report.